The conversation I wish Brad Ausmus would have with Dombrowski and Ilitch

When he enters his second season as manager of the Detroit Tigers, will Brad Ausmus change the methodology of the bullpen?

When he enters his second season as manager of the Detroit Tigers, will Brad Ausmus change the methodology of the bullpen?

Brad Ausmus is in the office of Dave Dombrowski. They are meeting with Mike Ilitch for an “autopsy” of the 2014 season.

“OK,” says the chastened rookie manager. “I did it your way. I know you didn’t want a revolution in my first year on the job. So I tried to do what I thought you wanted.

“You’d spent $18 million on a veteran closer. And when it became clear he had lost his edge, you went out and found other potential closers on the scrapheap. Joel Hanrahan, Jim Johnson, Joakim Soria.

“I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable, so I put the guys I had into the familiar roles everyone uses today. I stuck with Nathan. Joba was doing well until August, so I made him the eighth-inning set-up man.

“Then despite all the flak I got, I stuck to my guns. I used Joba in the eighth, and tried I Soria too. And when they didn’t succeed one day, I just held my breath and used them again the next game.

“You know what happened: disaster. Everyone came down on me. Even though I can tell you, if Dave Clark doesn’t send Miggy home to get thrown out by a mile, we are going to win Game Two. I mean, we got second and third, nobody out—at least another run scores, maybe more. I shouldn’t get all the blame.”

Dombrowski is nodding his head thoughtfully. Ilitch is nodding too, though it might be a sign he’s falling asleep.

“So what’s your point?” asks Dombrowski quietly.

Ausmus takes an audibly deep breath.

“My point is that it’s time to try a new approach. Mr. I, you’ve been spending a lot of money in vain. We need to start to innovate. The old way isn’t working for us.”

“What exactly do you mean, Brad?” asks Big Dave.

“I mean it’s time to try something new, and we’re the club to do it. Look, more than any other team I can think of, the Tigers have been burned in recent years by having closers who keep failing. Nathan. Jose Valverde. Before him, Fernando Rodney. And you can even go back to Todd Jones if you like.”

“So we’ve been unlucky?” Ilitch asks. Apparently he’s actually been paying attention all along.

“Yes, unlucky. But there are also essential flaws in the notion of paying someone so much extra to be a closer. I’ve been studying this intensely, and I’m convinced there’s a better way to handle the bullpen.”

“We’re listening, Brad,” says Dave D.

“The whole closer thing is the wrong way to approach using a relief staff,” says Brad. “Just because you can get saves pitching in the ninth doesn’t mean you have to have one guy who always pitches the ninth.”

“So, bullpen by committee?” queries Dombrowski.

“Not that exactly,” says Ausmus. “Because that makes it sound random, and the alternative is not just being random.”


“Bill James figured it out years ago with his theory of a bullpen ace. And other sabermetrics guys have been studying it more as the years go by.

“And even though we’ve bought into some sabermetrics and started using defensive shifts and all these data being generated are improving our approach to most aspects of the game, in this one area we might as well be using voodoo, because that’s what the whole closer thing is: superstition. Runs in the ninth inning don’t count any more than runs in any other inning.

“Closers don’t have any special magic. It’s all an act. There’s not any big extra pressure coming in to start the ninth with a two or three-run lead. There’s a hell of a a lot more on the line coming in to a close game in the sixth with a couple men on base and one out. That’s the time you should use your best available relief pitcher. You shouldn’t save him for the ninth just to get another save — the most meaningless statistic in baseball — because if you don’t use your best guy when there’s a jam, you might never be in a save situation. You’ll probably already be behind.”

“That makes sense,” says Mr. I, looking a bit befuddled. “I think.”

“Somebody has to change this. And because Tiger fans have suffered perhaps the most of any team from the closer charade, we should be the team to change it. And be very public that we are doing it. We should be the innovators.”

“You mean we should start making our pizza differently, with more craftsmanship?” asks the Ilitch.

“Yes,” says Ausmus, “and with a lot more common sense. And as we continue our meetings, I’ll lay out exactly what that would mean. Not only will it give us a better chance to finally win the World Series, Mr. I, it will even save you some money.”

This fantasy to be continued …